In order to boost to the creation of smart cities across the EU, we need a clearly defined European ‘smart city model’. The creation of such a model should be the next step in claiming our own European ‘smart city identity’.
In the past decade, the Internet has grown exponentially. And the best is yet to come: gradually, the Internet is evolving into a true ‘Internet of Things’ in which nearly all objects that surround us (cars, household appliances, light bulbs, etc.) will be connected.
As such, the foundation is laid for the creation of ‘smart cities’ in which tens of thousands of sensors and connected devices will optimize the way in which we live and work.
Smart cities are emerging all over the world. In Asia and the Middle East, some are even built from scratch. Noteworthy examples are the South Korean city of Songdo (a prestigious $35 billion project of which the first phase has been delivered last year) and the planned Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates.
At the other side of the world, smart cities such as San Francisco are seeing a boost in ‘bottom-up’ smart city developments – with private companies such as Uber (smart mobility), Airbnb (smart tourism) and Google’s Sidewalk Labs (city Wi-Fi hubs) pushing the uptake of smart service platforms.
At both ends of this spectrum (from greenfield projects in Asia to commercial initiatives in the US) quite some buzz is created – which leads many people to believe that not much is happening in Europe.
In order to correct that perception and to give a boost to the creation of smart cities in Europe, we need a clearly defined European ‘smart city model’ as well as the proper research methodologies and financial incentives to help mitigate part of the implementation risks.
Smart cities go beyond ‘top-down’ or ‘bottom-up’ platforms
While ambitious initiatives such as the Songdo project generate lots of interest and are perfect marketing vehicles to attract investments and expertise, they tend to ignore what smart cities are really about: a smart city is not just a prefab machine crammed with the latest technologies; it is a city that lifts quality of life to a totally new dimension by responding to people’s actual needs.
Also, initiatives such as Songdo tend to contract with one major technology consortium which is then responsible for the city’s backbone, its operations center and the definition of the major end-user services. It is clear, though, that one corporate provider can never provide the variety of services needed in a vibrant, dynamic city.
At the other side of the world, in the US, ‘bottom-up’ developments lead to commercial smart city offerings that are well-received by end-users. Yet, the emergence of such powerful corporate platforms that disrupt and replace public services, but that are not accountable to citizens, has also raised a number of concerns.
Already, objections against the ‘exploitation’ of public resources by these new smart city platforms have been voiced.
The European smart city model: putting users’ needs and creativity at the center stage
European cities such as Amsterdam, Barcelona, Helsinki and Vienna have clearly understood this, and are successfully reinventing themselves – in collaboration with their citizens. They have embraced a model that could be referred to as the ‘City as a Platform’ (CAAP).
In this model, the public authority remains in the lead of smart city developments, gathering around itself a whole ecosystem of start-ups, SMEs, large firms, non-profits and citizens to jointly create smart cities.
Yet, in spite of those efforts, a formally-defined European smart city model that could easily be picked up by other European stakeholders does not yet exist. The creation of such a model should be the next step in claiming our own European ‘smart city identity’.
At the basis of the European smart city model should be the so-called ‘quadruple helix’ – bringing together government, citizens, academia and industry to build smart cities in a way that combines the advantages of the top-down approach (safeguarding public interests) with bottom-up steered creativity.
For public organizations to remain a central stakeholder in this process – all while putting citizens’ needs center stage – they need to implement an actual Research, Development and Innovation (RDI) role for cities. The European model of Living Labs, where users and producers are brought together on a neutral platform to co-create and test innovations, is ideal for this.
The European model could thus overcome some important shortcomings of the American and Asian initiatives, securing the upfront buy-in from the people that will actually have to live, work and have fun in tomorrow’s smart cities.
At the same time, living lab research also allows us to tap directly into citizens’ own creative and valuable ideas, once again securing their buy-in and enthusiasm as they actually become smart city co-creators. Such an approach would make the European smart city model really stand out; all elements are there, we just need to formalize, operationalize and upscale them!
European incentives to help mitigate smart city implementation risks
Obviously, next to the central role of the users, financial considerations come into play too when building a smart city. Today, innovation support to mitigate risk is mainly granted to very immature technologies.
Yet, in a smart city context, risk not only resides in technology development, but also in its implementation. While the European Commission has started to acknowledge this, national innovation agencies are still often clinging to old techno-push frameworks.
In order to make the European CAAP model work, it is critically important that we continue to adapt our innovation programs to this new reality.
On the one hand, we need to help smart city partners leverage Europe’s experience in living lab research methodologies (through the European Network of Living Labs, for instance) to make sure implementation of new technologies is done first time right; and on the other hand, new measures are required to helping them mitigate the financial risk of smart city deployments too.